Bersatu’s post-Muhyiddin power vacuum riddle

MAY 6 — The moment Bersatu launched in 2016, the countdown began. A demise always threatening.

Perhaps, eventually vanish the way of Semangat 46, the other Umno splinter party before. After all, with one ex-prime minister and one axed deputy prime minister, backed by a slew of wannabes, what was Bersatu to achieve?

On stage. Mahathir Mohamad, Muhyiddin Yassin and a bunch of lightweights.

Without adequate firepower, even the unhappy ones stayed put, fairly assuming both critics of Umno would politically die out there in the cold. Better to be in an unprincipled Umno than to sink with an untested new enterprise.

Mahathir and Muhyiddin were not supposed to succeed, until Pakatan Harapan happened. The outcome, a new federal government with them on top.

But tales have twists.

Mahathir and Muhyiddin split in the most dramatic fashion in 2020.

The logo of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia is seen on caps in this file picture taken December 29, 2018. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
The logo of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia is seen on caps in this file picture taken December 29, 2018. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

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While Muhyiddin became prime minister, Bersatu lost one half of the power duo. Historians have to decide who was Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in that relationship.

Halved, yes, but Bersatu’s president is prime minister, and in Malaysia that’s the ball game. Mahathir and Pejuang are in political purgatory currently.

But what about the post-Muhyiddin era? Have the lightweights bulked up, or are party newcomers to shine, or will both new and old perish together as Bersatu?

No number two, down the pecking order

The pub quiz question most likely to get wrong, who’s Bersatu’s deputy president?

Ahmad Faizal Azumu.

The former Perak MB for Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional. Circumstance rather than talent brought him in and up and duly kicked him out. Few expect him to present the strategy to win back Perak, let alone lead Bersatu in the future.

If not Faizal, who then?

Looking at Bersatu’s official leadership chart, it’s slim pickings.

Just look at the three vice-presidents.

Ronald Kiandee is both former deputy speaker and long term MP, but being from Borneo enforces a glass ceiling inside a Malay-first organisation like Bersatu.

Senator and Education Minister Radzi Md Jidin has the education but does not have the gravitas. He was trounced in the Ketereh parliamentary contest in 2018. He’s preoccupied with his political survival in the next election.

Finally, assemblymen and state exco Mohd Rafiq Naizamohideen, a relative unknown in national politics.

The rest of Bersatu's line-up might as well be a tough political science year four examination test. Anyone who names them all should get a first class degree.

Ex-Umno 2.0 vs ex-PKR

While Bersatu’s talent pool was wafer thin post-GE14, reinforcements were en route.

And they were heavyweights, from both Umno and PKR.

Polar opposites in how they left their parties.

Former Umno leaders like Mas Ermieyati Samsudin, Abdul Latif Ahmad and Mustapa Mohamed won in the general election using the party platform, but since their party was out of power they deserted.

Former PKR leaders like Azmin Ali, Zuraida Kamaruddin and Kamaruddin Jaafar also won handsomely in the same general, but curiously left a winning coalition in order to undermine it and force the Pakatan Harapan government to collapse. Then they joined a new Bersatu-led coalition, Perikatan Nasional (PN).

Both offered MP counts to increase Bersatu’s wattage inside the new PN government.

But which new faction, belated to the Bersatu cause, has the ability to lift and strengthen Bersatu before and after the next general election?

Let’s examine the potency of the factions.

Leading ex-Umno 2.0 is Secretary-General and Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin.

And he loves the spotlight.

From countermanding police officers’ promotions to asking human rights activists to stuff it when it comes to migrants, Hamzah does not avoid attention.

He appears keener to rise than veteran Mustapa.

In the other corner, squaring up, are the ex-PKR bunch. Azmin brought a large political family into Bersatu, a group he forged support from while still together in PKR. 

They have a platform — Pergerak Komuniti Negara — operating with autonomy inside Bersatu, growing their influence while maintaining their own identity inside the whole.  

If Bersatu survives the next general election, expect a small mini battle inside the party for overall control.  

Choose Malaysia

The only state Bersatu runs is Sabah, ironically. Two hours away by flight from the Malay heartland.

Surprisingly for a party committed to Malay supremacy, they manage a state which prefers its leaders to have a multiracial outlook.

With the success over Umno in the state election last year, there’s the temptation to turn the party into a multiracial one.

Should they build on this or revert to type?

The upside of a race inclusive policy — if they choose to do so — is that Sarawak also becomes in play.

Bersatu can be the other Malaysian party, after PKR, to have a solid presence in all 14 states.

Though the likelier scenario is for Bersatu to flirt with multiculturalism for all the votes it’s worth but sticking to race supremacy to the end.

Muhyiddin’s choice

While retaining national power now is the undaunted focus of his government, the prime minister must consider his party’s long-term viability.

It would be damning if a party produces two prime ministers and then slips away from relevance. Umno waits for Bersatu’s collapse and cannot afford it stabilising.

Muhyiddin has relative tranquillity inside the party, as the originals, ex-Umno 2.0, ex-PKR and the Borneo troops, respect his leadership.

But in that regard, they would want him to leave them a power foundation to build from, even if ideologically the party is just a mesh of interests.

Bersatu has to find its voice before the general election, to be a value proposition with real long-term potential. Right now, Muhyiddin buys time to develop that. A 2021 election is too soon, but a 2023 election might give Bersatu enough time to find its own unique speed.

But more time also means, Muhyiddin has to form a better identity inside the party, before the usual grumblings of discontents grow inside due to factionalism.

The ball is certainly in his court, for now.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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